News & Politics

Dr. King Wanted 'Grand Alliance' of Blacks and Whites to Build Economic Justice

King and his allies understood that experiencing economic oppression could make allies out of blacks and whites.

Fifty years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., America's most prominent racial justice organizer, addressed these questions with his own solution: to organize blacks and whites along a common interest based on being oppressed by the economic system itself.

One of the explanations political scientists often offer for why the United States has such an individualistic culture and capitalist economy is because of our racial heterogeneity. Because the U.S. is so diverse, the argument goes, we are unable to put together the enduring coalitions necessary to achieve social democratic systems like much of homogeneous Western Europe has.

Indeed, as Europe has grown more diverse, it has faced challenges from a growing far-right movement that is attempting to use scapegoating and racial division to break up the social democratic consensus. And here in the United States, we often see divergent voting patterns between people of different races, with polarization along ethnic backgrounds often being the norm.

Fifty years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., America's most prominent racial justice organizer, addressed these questions with his own solution: organize blacks and whites along a common interest based on economic oppression.

Since his early years as an organizer, King had been an advocate for social democracy. In a 1955 letter to his future wife, Coretta, he told her that “capitalism had outlived its usefulness.” Nine years later, he had a number of civil rights victories under his belt and was a household name. Some in the country began to worry that his movement was asking for too much, too quickly, and was focused only on his own racial group.

To rebut this attempt at racial division, he wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post explaining the urgency of the problems he was working to solve. He laid out his proposal of a “grand alliance” between blacks and whites aimed at “eradicating social evils which oppress both white and Negro.” He pointed to high youth unemployment among both groups, and said economic competition would become self-destructive if the two groups did not cooperate. Finally, he warned that if “a few Negro extremists and white extremists manage to divide their people, a tragic result will be the ascendancy of extreme reaction which exploits all people”:

He pointed to high youth unemployment among both groups, and said that economic competition would become self-destructive if the two groups did not cooperate. Finally, he warned that if “a few Negro extremists and white extremists manage to divide their people, a tragic result will be the ascendancy of extreme reaction which exploits all people”:

This served as a sort of prelude to King's labor organizing activities that marked the last years of his life. He launched or participated in various economic justice campaigns. Here's a flyer King used when campaigning against Oklahoma's “right to work” ballot question:

Here's a flyer from King campaigning against Oklahoma's so-called “Right To Work” ballot question.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference activists began to use these bills to identify businesses that refused to bring blacks into the higher echelons of management as well as pay good wages to all of their workers:

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activists began to use these bills to identify businesses that refused to bring blacks into the higher echelons of their management as well as pay good wages to all of their workers.

In a 1966 article, King once again foresaw a divide between white and black workers if the economic needs of both were not met, saying that disappearing jobs would “give rise to destructive racial tensions and perhaps violence” (which we saw in the streets of de-industrialized Baltimore recently):

In a 1966 article, King once again foresaw a divide between white and black workers if the economic needs of both were not met, saying that disappearing jobs would “give rise to destructive racial tensions and perhaps violence” (which we all saw in the streets of de-industrialized Baltimore recently).

In an interview on the television program "Face the Nation," King was asked about the supposed disintegration of the black family and the high levels of black children born out of wedlock. Rather than take the bait from the questioners implying this was a cultural problem specific to black people, he pointed to the way economic deprivation destroys families:

In an interview on the television program Face The Nation, he was asked questions about the supposed disintegration of the black family, high levels of children born out of wedlock.

As he reached the last years of his life, King started the Poor People's Campaign, which explicitly aimed to lift up people of all races who were being denied decent housing, education and wages. Here is an informational pamphlet about the movement:

As he reached the last years of his life, King started the Poor People's Campaign, which explicitly aimed to lift up people of all races who were being denied decent housing, education, and wages. Here's an informational pamphlet about the movement.

The Poor People's Campaign dovetailed with King's increasingly internationalist worldview, including his sharp opposition to the Vietnam War, which permanently damaged his good relationship with Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson. In one of his last sermons, King laid out a vision that was radical in its scope, providing one of the first calls for a just globalization of resources, explaining how the entire world's economic future was interrelated because all of life on earth is interrelated:

In one of his last sermons, King laid out a vision that was radical in its scope, providing one of perhaps the first calls for a just globalization of resources, explaining how the entire world's economic future was interrelated.

All of this serves as a reminder that King, alongside the civil rights movement, certainly wanted to improve the fortunes of black citizens who had been oppressed for hundreds of years. But it also showed that King and his allies understood that the oppression their people faced was linked to the oppression other people faced, whether it was union workers being denied their rights, poor whites denied proper education and access to jobs, or laborers overseas working in sweat shops to produce the products we use every day.

King's movement was not sectarian in nature; it was based on solidarity between people with very different backgrounds with common interests of being freed from oppressive conditions. Fifty years on, this civil rights movement continues to provide an ideological and spiritual roadmap for creating a broad-based, multiracial progressive movement that creates a just and free America for everyone, something we've long been told we cannot do due to our heterogeneity.

Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.

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